This is The ChangeUnderground for the 26th of April 2021.
I’m your host, Jon Moore
Decarbonise the Air, Recarbonise the Soil!
We have lived through a period of agriculture that could be described as over specialisation. The number of mixed farms dropped after the second world war. From being cereal farmers, say, growing maize, wheat, oats, rye, clover, peas and barley, individuals were driven by government incentives and market forces into growing one or two crops, maize and soybeans.
The idea of a mixed farm, cropping, pastures, animals and maybe some timber or fruit orchards was derided as inefficient. One product, specialisation and expertise in that crop would lead to bigger and better yields. Now from what I’ve read over the years, this bigger and better yields was never actually linked directly to higher incomes but the meaning is implicit. What happened across great swathes of the industrialised world was a huge run up in the volume of commodities. Wheat, maize, rice, sugar, cotton and other grains too were affected by these changes.
Let’s have a look at the situation prior to the push for specialisation. Now by specialisation I’m talking industrial level not hill farmers whose land is only suitable for sheep nor those graziers in areas of high predation where cattle alone make the most sense. I’m talking about those farms which sat in the middle ground. Maybe a few dairy cows for the house supply and to feed some pigs or a larger cattle operation as part of their systems, sheep to follow the bovines, rotated paddocks with wheat, field peas, barley and then pasture for a few years. At the least a home orchard and veggie patch. Some grain storage on site or again, the use of pigs to convert surpluses into a saleable product while generating manures in the process.
The income streams for this sort of operation are varied, as are the tasks throughout the year. Sale of cattle, pigs, lambs, wool, wheat, barley and peas would cover each other in some ways most years. Wool prices are down, wheat and pork are up and vice versa as the vagaries of the markets play out. The point is, this sort of farm is not tied to one particular market. The other, obvious point is the interconnectedness of this enterprise. Stock manuring land in preparation for cereals, cereal stubble feeding sheep, screened cereals using the prime sized seed for planting next year and the smaller ones for pig feed which of course produced both pork and manures. Wirth a mixed system like this and a moderately capable farmer, the soil could do nothing but improve.
Enter the “efficiency” gods. Fences ripped out, hedges torn down, tractors upsized and maize planted from boundary to boundary. A heavy feeder, maize would drain a soil produced by mixed farming in a few years. Didn’t matter, these maize varieties were bred for use with artificial, scientifically formulated, fertilisers. I have nothing against science per se. Indeed I’m trying to see the world as I see it as nothing but a series of hypotheses I have assumed to be correct. Ok so somethings like the theories of gravity and evolution I’m happy to accept as proven to a standard that moves them from hypothesis to theory. But what if everything I assumed was correct didn’t match the empirical data and I hadn’t noticed because I’d assumed I “knew” the answers already? So, no, I have nothing against the scientific method but I have a lot against the advertising use of science. Science funded by vested interests is another way of putting it. Imagine the situation: an ag chem company develops a fertiliser, they run some trials with and without the new wonder product and yes, it works. Straight to sales. Did the trials measure runoff? Or effects on soil biota? Or inhalation by the farmer of aerosolized particles? Or if the new product interacted unfavourably with residual compounds from other ag chem producers? Or if the production system promoted protected soil from wind or water erosion? In 99.99% of cases, of course not. The trials were set up to sell the product.
Then comes the wonders of increased productivity! I don’t mean to be cynical, it just happens some days. Great, extra productivity per unit land area, tonnes per hectare, bushels per fahrenheit or whatever. At first glance, this might seem a good thing. Look over the boundary fence and you’ll see that everyone else has increased productivity. And guess what? We’re all selling into the same market. There’s this thing called demand and supply. If the supply of a good increases, the price should drop to clear the market. This might not hold true for everything but for commodities, it’s almost set in stone. Many sellers, many buyers, as close to perfect knowledge on both sides of the market results in prices falling when supply increases and demand remains static.
What’s happened on our theoretical farm? From using a mixture of animals and plants to support soil fertility and being buffered from changes in one market by having other markets to support the enterprise, this farm is now buying in artificial fertiliser, seed and maybe water, then selling into an increasingly supplied single marketplace where the producer is a price taker not a price maker.
Over time, this monocultural production attracts pests and diseases to itself as it is basically a food source without any biological protection from other species, because there aren’t any, and so costs increase as pesticides and herbicides are added to this method of farming. As costs increase and prices fall, the advice from the ag economists is to get big or get out. How does one get big? Buy more land. This takes people out of rural economies and sends them off to urban/suburban settings. Now with all this extra land, we’re going to need bigger machinery to work it. Some enterprises can do all this without debt but many cannot. As the size of farms has increased in the industrialised world so too has the level of debt. I believe it was Gabe Brown (link in the show notes) who mentioned on a cover crop podcast that his neighbours were planting $800,000 in the Spring in the hope of harvesting $850,000 in late summer. He also said that was no way to sleep well at night.
In such a precarious position, even with the subsidies and crop insurances and so on available in the US farmers are going out of business and destroying soils in the hope of a return. I don’t condemn them, they were following what looked like the best advice they could get. And in places without the same levels of subsidy, the situation is worse. Toss in a little Global Warming with floods, fires and droughts, sometimes in the one year, and any enterprise that puts all it’s eggs into one basket, so to speak, is going to be in trouble.
Back in episode 246, I reported on a third the US corn belt being without topsoil and this is the obvious endpoint of the specialisation path this episode has discussed.
What’s to be done? Bringing back animals to cereal enterprises, in a regenerative way.That is by mob grazing and all the other things we’ve discussed here over the past five and a bit years, then soils could, nay, would be rebuilt. I think we tamper, as a species, with things that have proven themselves in the long run. Usually for increased returns but also because: efficiency, whatever that truly means.
Cereals are just grasses that have been subject to selection pressures over time. They co-evolved with herbivores into a symbiotic relationship. Hence the great productivity of places like the Serengetti, the Pampas, the Steppe and the Prairies. Plants, mostly grasses, feeding and being fed by herbivores. If we can remove the debt impost, we can rejuvenate these landscapes. We can do so in a way that’s carbon negative, recarbonising the soils, where have I heard that before?. The tools are at hand. The current system which craves increasing productivity on a finite landmass and finances productivity increases through debt is not sustainable, humane nor uplifting.
We must ensure agriculture is part of the COP26 outcomes in Glasgow this November, COVIDs permitting. We can also ensure our gardens include animals. Even if it’s only a couple of guinea pigs in a moveable hutch, spreading their droppings through time and space, we can find a way to blend the vegatative and the animal.
A reminder that The ChangeUnderground is supporting the Bubugo Conservation Trust in Uganda through ten percent of the course sales and the Buy Me a coffee link at WorldOrganicNews.com (Link in the show notes)
If you have any questions, thoughts or suggestions, I opened a new Facebook group I’ve called, imaginatively, The ChangeUnderground Podcast Group. You search on the FB or there’s a link in the show notes and in the transcript over at WorldOrganicNews.com episode 254.
Remember fruit growing is a great way to decarbonise the air and recarbonise the soil.
Thank you all for listening and I’ll be back next week.
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Bubugo Conservation Trust